The "Northern" Red-tailed Hawk

15 May 2014

What is the "Northern" Red-tailed Hawk?

There has long been talk of a proposed race of the Red-tailed Hawk that has been called several names over the years, such as "Northern," "Canadian borealis," and "Canadian Eastern." P.A. Taverner (1927), W.E.C. Todd (1950), and Dickerman & Parkes (1987) all published excellent articles discussing the subject, and other articles (Liguori, 2001) and on-line material are available for reference. The Northern Red-tailed Hawk breeds from New England to southeast Alaska (see map) throughout the boreal forest (and a few on the Great Plains), hence the scientific name Buteo jamaicensis abieticola, abieticola meaning "dweller of the firs," is fitting. As of now, the Northern race is currently considered a heavily marked version of the borealis (Eastern) race, and not a separate subspecies, but it should have subspecies status to help simplify how birders and ornithologists treat and discuss it. By all subspecies standards, abieticola has a distinct breeding range, and identifiable characteristics. Of course, we cannot identify every Northern Red-tail, since the plumage variation is extensive and paler versions overlap with southern borealis, and some extensively marked versions are extremely Western-like, but we are incapable of identifying any race with 100% reliability for that matter. There is more to learn about the Northern race, and studying them on the breeding grounds is difficult due to the remoteness of their range.

Anyway, here are some examples of the Northern race. Note the Eastern-like appearance of these birds but with heavy bellybands, darker throats, rufous-tinted undersides, and sometimes banded tails. A new article discusses this race in greater detail, download it by clicking on the "Jerry Liguori Articles" tab to the right.